Meat Alternatives for Vegans: But How Do They Taste?
Our Journey Begins
I'm willing to sacrifice a lot on this vegan journey towards weight loss and our best health, but not everything. After my daughter suggested we give the vegan diet a try, I knew the biggest hurdle I'd face would be taste. I cook for our household - breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner daily and we like food that's full of flavors from around the world.
We grow our herbs and some veggies and use them - liberally in our meals. Basil, Thai basil, rosemary, thyme, scallions, red peppers, sage, mint, oregano and more depending on the season. And, we don't want that to change. It's fun to send the kids out to the garden to clip herbs, as I'm cooking.
As I shared in an earlier blog, I love(ed) meat. Not so much the meat itself, but the savory smell, flavor and endless sauces that you can from the drippings. We ate well, and unfortunately, over time... it began to show in my weight and cholesterol levels which were creeping up with each physical. But, like many virgin vegans, we weren't ready to jump right into three salads a day, We knew we needed a transition to the plant-based diet and to my surprise we found that meat substitutes have come a long way! When my friends and I tried being a vegetarian in my late 20's, we tried all of the urban hipster restaurants in our DC area, but the truth is I didn't enjoy any of them. The food wasn't attractive, tasted like cardboard and had one texture - mush. Which, is why I didn't remain vegetarian very long.
Our Meat Replacements
You can tell that the world of mock meat has significantly improved, with the variety of names they've come up to market it: non-meat product, faux meat, imitation meat, analogue, meat alternative, meat substitute, mock meat. I think you get the idea. But what you may not know is how realistic some of them look, feel and taste. Instead of meat we now primarily cook with: Beans and Legumes Quinoa Cauliflower Potatoes (yes, some carbs seem unavoidable) Corn
Seitan and Jackfruit
Other cooks use seitan which is similar to soy in texture but comes from wheat gluten. Of course, seitan is not for those with wheat gluten sensitivities. Then there's jackfruit which you can find at Wholefoods and other grocery stores. It's what I used to make the curried "meatless beef tips you see above. Jackfruit is savory, but also a little sweet. Some people like to cut it in strips in stir-fry and other dishes. Some cooks prefer using eggplant and mushrooms, neither of which is my favorite in our household because of food allergies. And, then there is tofu. I learned to love it while staying at a Monastery in Japan, where no meat or invigorating spices were allowed. The food was not bland because tofu soaked up and takes on the rich flavors of the vegetables or herbs you use with it. Some people snack on homemade baked tofu chips, and you can also use it to make crispy or baked meatless chick'n and a hundred other dishes. But, tofu can be tricky, if you don't don't buy the right type for your cooking intentions. Early on I bought a block soaking in water and it was a squishy mess. That meal ended up in the trash. I'm still learning how to purchase and cook it successfully.
I have an 11-year old son, so we try not to overdue his soy intake, but you can use any of all of those substitutes to duplicate the look and texture of just about anything you used to eat and enjoy. They are so good in fact that I bet I could trick you. I'm going to video a taste test and post it. We'll see how many people can pick out the real meat from our faux favorites. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime here is a list of some of my kid's favorite vegan meals so far: Tacos, grilled chicken breast, beef tips over rice, spaghetti, lasagna, penne w/ meat sauce, grilled cheese, mac & cheese, pizza, stir-fry, curry, tikka masala w/ samosas, grilled hotdogs and meatballs, burgers, pancakes and so much more. One of the meatless products that I often start with is Soy Chorizo from Trader Joes. Be sure to remove the casing and don't overcook it. It crumbles and is spicy. I like to combine it with almost any other meat-like product I might be using to get a ground turkey or beef effect. Among them, Lightlife Smart Sausages or Beyond Meat crumble. I've purchased both Harris Teeter and Wholefoods. I always like to add a bit of red wine to the Soy Chorizo to help mellow out the heavy handed paprika.
In some cases, you might also add a touch of natural sweetener (not sugar), depending on the dish you are creating. I chop up onions and roasted garlic, and from there you have the base for your spaghetti sauce, chili, tacos or any Mexican dish you can come up with, including nachos. When it comes to preparing school lunches, there are vegan sliced "meat" on the market which you could use for sandwiches, but I'm not yet sold on those yet. Instead, I usually make an extra portion of whatever I'm cooking for dinner and use that as my base for lunch the next day. But, I change it to make it look and taste like a different dish.
Sometimes I'll add a pasta, rice or additional vegetable to whatever we had the night before to make my kids enthusiastic about eating leftovers. And other times I'm able to create an entirely new dish. For example, if we had tacos for dinner, I'll take the taco meat and use it to make burritos with beans and cheese. Or if I make spaghetti, I'll use the same meat sauce in penne with fresh vegetables for school the next day.
My children say it's like getting an entirely new meal and their friends always want a tastes, so I'd say it's working.
Cheese? Yes, I did say that I add cheese - veggie cheese. Several companies now make vegan cheese and my kids give them all two thumbs up for look, smell and taste. Personally, I find the product to be a bit too creamy and cheesy, and I just don't care for the mozzarella at all. But, that fact that my kids like these mock cheese products makes going vegan a lot easier!
One of their favorites is grilled cheese. You have to admit, it looks like the real thing, without the downsides of dairy.
The Effect On Your Wallet
Listen to this, I've found that there is an extra benefit to making this big switch to a vegan family diet. I was prepared for my grocery bill to skyrocket because I recall interviewing people for stories and they would complain that a vegetarian or vegan diet is just too expensive, especially if they had to shop at specialty markets. Well, that is not necessarily the case. To my surprise, the amount of money I spend on groceries has gone down. Frankly, I'm grateful, but, don't quite get it because we load up our cart with fresh fruit, seasonal vegetables, nuts, and grains. But what an unexpected pleasure to get the total at the check out counter.
A lower than expected grocery bill eliminates another excuse for not giving the plant-based diet a try, or for us to keep going.